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Over the past couple of months, from my vantage point across an ocean and a continent, I have observed a growing disconnect between most of Israel's political analysts  - and the actual campaign for Israel's general elections, which will take place in only 3 days.

In October when the election was announced, there was near-universal agreement that it's all going to be one big garbage time. Prime Minister Bibi will cake-walk it to a second consecutive - and third overall - term in office, and the Right-dominated Israeli status quo of the 2000's will continue. I tended to agree with this view, but with this caveat: in Israel, anyone who calls the election results 3 months in advance is a fool.

In my eyes, from mid-November the campaign became more and more interesting by the week. By now, I must confess that for me it's been one of the most entertaining campaigns to follow. As a non-state-emissary expatriate I cannot vote, and in the 3 previous elections during our stay here I was far less engaged. Maybe it's Facebook, and the incessant stream of punch lines and visual memes (check out the memes in my previous diary from December). Maybe.

But also, my eyes tell me that something is happening. And yet, the dominant pundit line (parroted all over the English-language news universe, too) has continued to be "garbage time, garbage time, the election's in Bibi's pocket, the Left's finished, .... b-o-r-i-n-g ! ..."

Not.

"King Bibi"? What a Joke.



First, the myth of "King Bibi" is once again (for the umpteenth time) proven baseless. Most Israelis really don't like Bibi. The massive, unprecedented protests of 2011 (now, perhaps prematurely, seen almost as a "Midsummer's Night Dream" with no sequel) were in a large part personally directed against him.

And now during the campaign itself, he's become more and more vulnerable:

- He launched on Gaza in mid-November, in a cynical transparent attempt to boost his electoral standing, but emerged with multiple eggs on his face.

- Immediately afterwards, Palestine was accepted to the UN as an observer state, with only Israel, the US and a handful of tiny US satellites voting no - an outcome that Bibi had spent immense diplomatic efforts over more than a year to prevent.

- On the "Bibi's stable economy" front, the bad news just keep coming. The most recent: the budget shortfall in 2012 was nearly $10B, or 4.2% of the GDP - far more than the government had previously reported. It is my contention, that Bibi's main motive for calling elections a few months early despite a reasonably stable coalition, was the wish to get them over with - before the bad news and deeply unpopular austerity steps he'll doubtlessly try to push through.

On top of this: nobody mentions that, but Bibi is a lousy campaigner. In 4 election campaigns in which Bibi led Likud, his party never emerged the largest. Even in 1996, the country's first direct-personal elections to the Prime Minister in which he upset Peres 50.5%-49.5%, Likud came in second to Labor in Knesset seats (32 vs. 34, out of 120). Then, in 1999 Bibi was voted out, and Likud fell to 19 seats. He wouldn't get his hand dirty sitting in opposition, so he "retired" right away... for a couple of years, that is. The next time he led Likud was 2006, and Likud came in fourth with only 12 seats. Last elections - 2009 - he managed to score a come-from-ahead upset loss to the center-right Kadima party (27 to 28),gaining the premiership only via dirty back-room maneuvers.

0 out of 4 is not a coincidence. Certainly not when it happens at a time when your side of the political map dominates the nation. Indeed, the only thing that's sure about Tuesday's elections, is that this time - finally - Bibi will emerge as the head of the candidate list that wins the most seats.

How did he manage to guarantee that? In another signature back-room deal, he agreed with his deputy Lieberman (whose personality-cult party has cornered the market on the "Russian" vote in the past two elections), to run in a single list on a 2:1 alternating ratio. He didn't bother to ask his party members, who were less than thrilled. Bibi - always the hysterical Basil Fawlty type of decision-maker -  couldn't bear the thought of failing for a 5th time. Mind you, it is not a party merger: in another one of the endless string of news embarrassments Bibi has produced for himself this campaign, it became known that the parties split their ways, each taking its own marbles, the day after the election, and Bibi will have to negotiate with Lieberman almost like with any other party.

Anyway, together these two lovely parties won 42 seats in 2009. Given that Kadima had disintegrated to smithereens - and it's a good thing, because it was always more hoax than genuine party, and given that further left, Labor is still picking up its own pieces - there is nothing nearly close to that size around.

But since its announcement, the Likud-Beitenu amalgam has been on a steady gradual decline, losing 1-2 seats per week. It is now polling mostly in the low 30's. Take out Lieberman's cut, and come government-maintaining time, Bibi might have barely 20 seats to his name, with which to dominate a 120-seat chamber.

So the election's real story is Bibi's deep unpopularity, and the public's general malaise

.

Unfortunately, as I detailed in December, by refusing do draw a contrast with Bibi on any topic except the economy, Labor's leader has missed a golden opportunity. We might have been talking now about a tightening race; instead, we'll likely have a fragmented Knesset parliament with no "King" or "Queen".

Yes, Bibi is still the overwhelming favorite to be Israel's next Prime Minister. But the odds now seem even greater, that he'll be much weakened, and will face a far more energetic opposition, than in the current term.

It's all academic, some say; ending the Occupation is not on the menu anyway so the elections are just a game of distraction. I beg to differ. One of the hallmarks of uphill struggles against oppressive systems, is that they seem dominant and even scornful of your feeble attempts - right until the last moment. Then some internal fault cracks open, and it's over. See under Soviet Union. See under Apartheid. See under U.S. Slavery.

Similarly, an election whose results are humiliating for Bibi, and after which no one can set up a government that lasts very long, could be such a crack. And given the huge number of undecided or unsure - most polls quote 20%-30% - the crack might open with the bang of an election-night surprise.

Sticking to the Headline, Changing the Bylines?



Pundits don't like admitting they were wrong. So as the "King Bibi" line crumbled, Israeli analysts stayed with the bottom line ("garbage time" etc.), but have changed the highlight. They've tried two, in fact: "2013 will be the Right's biggest victory" and "2013 will be the Left's worst defeat."

Wrong and Wrong again. And again. Continue reading if you want to learn how and why.

The Fallacy in "2012-2013 is the Year of the Right and Settlers"



The solid Right + Orthodox bloc of parties consistently emerges with a majority in all current polls. In some polls even 70+ seats (even though most of the recent polls are closer to the halfway mark of 60).

The lazy Israeli pundits compare this to the 65 seats the same bloc had supposedly won in 2009 - at the time, the most ever - and just "do the math" to conclude that 2013 might mark a new record. But they willfully ignore the nature of that 28-seat behemoth of a "party", Kadima, that is not counted with the Right.

Kadima was founded late 2005 by Ariel Sharon, at the time Prime Minister and leader of Likud. Despite adding to its ranks a few Labor figureheads (most notoriously Shimon Peres), Likud politicians have always outnumbered everyone else there combined, at least 2:1. Sharon's successor at Kadima's lead - Olmert, Livni and now Mofaz - all came from Likud. So in 2009, Likud pulled the amazing feat of running under 3 brands: "classic Likud", the Lieberman cult catering to "Russians", and a moderate-posing one (headed at the time by Tzipi Livni) catering to center and even (thanks to Livni's gender and campaign style) to left-of-center. And the niche marketing paid off: the 3 arms combined won 70 seats.

That was the Israeli Right's electoral high-water mark. I hope that in my lifetime I won't see anything near that.

By 2013, Kadima (as said) has disintegrated. Its two remnants, running under Livni and Mofaz respectively, will be lucky to gather more than 10 seats together; quite likely less. And the number of genuine right-wingers who will enter Knesset under both combined, will almost surely be less than 5. So compare roughly 70 right-wingers expected in the next Knesset, with about 85 in the outgoing one. The Right has passed its undeserved zenith.

The only ascendant force on the Right this campaign has been the Orthodox-nationalist "Jewish Home" party, led by a fresh and charismatic face, Naftali Bennett (son to US immigrants who converted to Orthodoxy, the Jewish analogue of Evangelist Christians). He's polling around 15 seats, and - together with Ayelet Shaked, the only secular on the list - successfully and effectively hide the remaining dozen-or-so unappealing or even hideous potential members of the next Knesset on their list.

Admitted, Bennett is a lucky shot for the Right-Orthodox parties, who for years languished under leaders with the charisma and general-public appeal of a rusty nail. But his rise is grossly over-hyped. His main electoral feat so far has been to bring back home the Orthodox votes that had preferred Likud, Shas or some other non-Orthodox party. He seems to be drawing some disaffected Bibi/Lieberman voters as well. My analysis (and also some recent on-the-ground reports) indicate that this is more due to Bibi's weakness than to Bennett's supposed magic. On the merits, Bennett seems like a sleazebag who could sell anything to anyone, or at least try (that apparently is how he sold his start-up company and became a millionaire).

In particular, the idea that Bennett's popularity (and Labor leader's Yachimovich's cowardice about settlements) as an indication that settlers are now the new leaders of Israeli society, with their role widely accepted and respected - an idea promoted even by progressive analysts such as the 972mag website - is downright ridiculous.

A coalition of economically progressive NGOs has just commissioned a poll, asking Israelis what they would rather cut to resolve the huge budget hole. Here's what they found: (emphasis mine)

According to the survey, which was conducted by the Panels research institute among 600 people, 81.9% think settlements should be the first source of budget cuts, followed by infrastructure (50.5%) and defense (40%)....

According to the Panels institute, the majority of respondents who characterized themselves as right wing also supported diverting funds from the settlements to help balance the budget.

82%. Far and away, the first thing nearly all Israelis (including a majority of right-wingers) would cut, is the subsidies to the settlements. So much for these times being "The Year of the Settler".

Last but not Least: The Fallacy of "The Left's Worst Defeat"



Granted, the Israeli center-left isn't looking great these elections and is probably not ready to topple Bibi outright (even though this has become a distinct possibility according to most recent polls). There's been too much fragmentation for that to happen. But the wailing as if this is a "worst defeat" of any kind, are seriously 180 degrees off mark. In fact, following upon the heels of the 2011 protests, these elections mark the continuation of the Left's painfully gradual revival.

If this was the Left's worst year, then for sure the only Zionist party openly running as Left, would have suffered, no? That party would be Meretz, who in 2009 fell to its lowest-ever mark with 3 seats. To make matters "worse" for Meretz, during the November mini-war it had the temerity to oppose, breaking an inglorious tradition of previous leaderships mumbling and reluctantly supporting Israel's various military adventures. Surely, if this is "the Left's worst year", voters would be disgusted with such rampant Leftism, and will do away with Meretz once and for all?

Yes. In all recent polls, Meretz doubles its current strength, sitting on 6-7 seats - and still moving up from poll to poll. This, despite having no new faces and no campaign surprises (except the unplanned one of opposing the war).

The party that's stuck in the polls is Labor, whose leader vehemently denied being part of the Left or even center-left, and refused to make the obvious settlement-economic connection that 82% of Israelis apparently can. The connection that, in fact, even most of her own partners in the Labor leadership want to make. It is no coincidence, of course. Voters want a contrast, they want an opposition they can rally behind - not someone running away from herself.

So no. This is not a "worst defeat".

The Left's worst defeat came some 12 years ago, when then-Labor leader, then-Prime-Minister Ehud Barak emerged from a failed round of negotiations with his "No Partner" lie, confirming the stereotype of The Arab as an illegitimate lying crook, and simultaneously letting the military unleash massive deadly fire on the riots that had started spreading. This watershed moment has hurled Israel-Palestine into an abyss, 12.5 lost years and counting. Israelis now know who Ehud Barak is: a serial liar, a personally corrupt, deeply unpopular man. Right now he still sits in the Security Ministry, but he's so unpopular that he gave up running again, and his joke of a "party" (basically, just a theft of 5 seats from Labor) has disbanded itself and will not disgrace the next Knesset with its presence.

Too many Israelis have a hard time letting go of the "No Partner" lie, and can't seem to connect the dots to what they've since learned about the man who invented it. So the road to a full comeback of the center-left camp, to a camp not ashamed to put ending the Occupation and a viable Palestinian state at the top of its policy agenda, is still a rocky uphill one.

But don't mistake the direction. Regardless of whether Bibi will have the pieces to cobble together a semi-stable government, the next Knesset will have in it a sizable cohort of 30-40 fighting progressives, perhaps even more. This is something Israel hasn't seen in over a decade.

At last, the direction indicated by the Israeli voter seems to be up, rather than dig further into the hole we're in. Unfortunately, most politicians usually lag behind the public, but eventually they catch up. Here's hoping it happens in Israel-Palestine sooner rather than later.

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Comment Preferences

  •  IMO a new political leader has to emerge (6+ / 0-)

    Someone who is eloquent and stands in contrast to the right wing neo-cons who rule Israel.

    Any idea who this new leader may be?

    There is opposition and perhaps a movement but for things to happen someone has to get on the spotlight and run.

    Daily Kos an oasis of truth. Truth that leads to action.

    by Shockwave on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 08:57:19 AM PST

    •  You are correct and in a just universe such a (6+ / 0-)

      leader would emerge among the Palestinians and the Israelis so the two of them could sit down and arrive at an equitable resolution of the mess Sharon/Bibi have left.  However that would be in a just universe.

      I see a future dominated by the same tired hacks and inflammatory radicals.  I see more of the same ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

      As far as the settlers, short of giving them all of Greater Israel and expelling all the Palestinians, what more could they possibly gain that they have not already received?

  •  Seems to me that the left should vote for Bennett (0+ / 0-)

    to wrest power from Bibi - even if it means going hard right temporarily because that would lead to great isolation in the short term and thus then give rise to a legit opposition on from the center left.  

    Or even if Bennett has more power but Bibi still has the PM role, Bennett would drive a harder bargain with Bibi, and Netanyahu would then have to decide to cut a deal with him or look to his left instead.  

    Voting Bibi because at least he isn't Bennett would be the worst decision.  

    "The world is made for people who aren't cursed with self awareness" -Annie Savoy (Bull Durham)

    by Jacoby Jonze on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 10:04:57 AM PST

    •  The Left should vote to Left parties. Period. (6+ / 0-)

      Sorry if it wasn't clear: there is no personal direct elections in Israel anymore.

      Voters put into the ballot only one slip with the alphabetic symbol of the party they support. So there are no personal "Bibi" or "Bennett" votes to cast.

      There is absolutely no sane reason for a Left voter to put in a Right party's symbol. Elections are privacy-shielded, so your smart-aleck Right vote will be indistinguishable from a Rightist's genuine vote, and the Right will claim a broad "democratic" mandate to perpetrate whatever they have in mind.

      Anyone who feels the system's so bankrupt, could organize a boycott instead. There have been people trying to do that, but I think it is still worth it to vote for anti-Occupation progressive parties, whose Knesset members tend to be hard-working and principled, and give the Left a voice on the national podium.

      An interesting alternative to boycotting was covered here by The Troubadour. Israelis who feel the system is too bankrupt because Occupied Palestinians controlled by Israel are given no voice - "donate" their votes to such Palestinians, asking them whom to vote for.

  •  Fear over rides common sence. (0+ / 0-)

    The Israelis fear more than the Palistinians...they fear that thier world is coming apart from within.  The alliances they have made to keep thier 'utopian society' pure are beginning to turn on each other...because now each wants his own utopia.

    Honestly, if it were not for them stirring the common enemy pot together, each one of them would have poisoned the porriage to destroy the other long ago.

    It is time for Israel to join the rest of us in good human moral and ethical values, and commit to the rules, regulations and humanity they DEMAND from everyone else.  This is the only way forward for them now.  Loose the fear and and elect democratic leaders rather than a miltary leadership, and begin to live like the rest of us...no privlages, no liberties, except that we earn honestly.

    It is time we...the rest of the world...stop coddling them, and excusing them from humanity.

    I support the right of an Israeli to be whatever he or she wants...but not at the expence of someone else, or someone elses property.

    •  This may be one of those few rare instances where (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Assaf

      the military is not to blame. It is military who were no-no-no-ing Bibi's lust to attack Iran because of possible nuclear competition. remember the time last year when Israel the state was taking the mutually exclusive positions that it had no nuclear weapons, but the IAEA report which said it wasn't caring very well for the weapons it didn't have and they were doing a better job than that. That's Bibi. And the military has at least recently said more than usual and it not Bibi-manic when they did, about Bibi's military adventurism, discussing whether to invade Lebanon first or Sinai or Gaza or . . . .

    •  I'm highly critical of Israeli actions (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sofia, Assaf, poco

      and policies toward the Palestinians, but arguments like this are just silly.  Which "good human moral and ethical values" do we have that Israel does not?  Are you talking about the drone strikes that the US conducts in which innocent Afghani and Pakistani civilians are killed?  Are you talking about domestic US policies in which something like one in three African-American males can expect to be imprisoned during their lifetimes?  Are you talking about our so-called "war on terror," through which the US government is attacking more and more of our civil liberties, especially if one happens to be Arab-American?   The Republican war on women?  

      One can be critical of what Israel's government is doing without these Manichean dichotomies that Israel is bad while the rest of us are good.

  •  Thanks, Assaf. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sofia, Assaf, poco

    This is a really refreshing analysis.  Of course, if the internal fault does crack open, there's no way to know what will emerge.  But I too am heartened by Meretz's stance and, IIRC, its willingness to engage with Hadash, Balad and Ra'am Ta'al.

    •  Well, my hope of course that it cracks b/c of Left (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, Aunt Martha

      doing somewhat better than expected right now, and Bibi's list falling under 30 seats.

      Which is already better than what ppl expected a few months ago.

      Israelis have such short memory :)

      Anyway, if they do even a little bit better, Bibi will have a really hard time putting together any sort of coalition.

      But we'll see soon enough.

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